On Thursday, one day after her husband signed an executive order to roll back the same draconian policy of separating migrant children from their families that he instituted in the first place, Melania Trump boarded a plane to visit the New Hope Children’s Shelter in Texas — a US Health and Human Services facility caring for migrant children, many of whom have been separated from their families since they entered the United States. She asked officials how she could help the shelter’s children reach their parents on the phone, and what she could do to help reunite families. “Be kind and nice to other, okay?” she reportedly told the children.
And then — “Good luck.”
The whiplash of her comments — expressing a practical sympathy and then a tone-deaf sign-off — is emblematic of how The First Lady communicates with words. Despite being at the helm of one of the most influential public platforms in the country, Melania Trump is remarkable in that she seemingly does not like to say or do much. The few and infrequent actions she’s taken since the election have seemed like First Lady Mad Libs. The “Be Best” social program she debuted in May is both confusingly broad and frustratingly thin, and her tweets wildly range in style, likely taking on the tone of whoever’s ghostwriting them at the time. Trying to understand her hopes and fear for her country by looking at what she says is a futile exercise, largely because they're frequently contradicted by her husband. Her statements have the quality and shelf-life of a hot dog bun — bland and palatable for a day before they’re contradicted by Donald Trump's tweets and policies. What she says and what actually happens are unreliable. But one forum that Melania Trump has been outstandingly consistent is through what she wears.
Not only does the former model nearly exclusively wear luxury European designers, but she favours a distinct look. Her wide belts, just-below-the-knee-length hems, peg-leg trousers, belted coats, and five-inch heels are variations on the same theme. It says, again and again, that she is in control of her appearance. That even if you question her motives, character, and integrity, that you should never second-guess her taste. She is a woman whose statements are unpredictable — but when it comes to her appearance, Melania is steadfast. Her only slip-up has been a single paparazzi photo with her hair in a bun and her makeup-less face behind a pair of gold aviators. It's hardly a detraction at all.
Her insistence on good taste is rigid and uncompromising to the point that it frequently gets her in trouble. Few could forget when she wore dagger stilettos to tour the damage that Houston incurred during Hurricane Harvey, or the £40,000 Dolce & Gabbana jacket she wore on the same trip when she met a pope who purposefully rejects the.pomp and excess that typically come with papal vestments. She has had brief moments when her on-trend, luxury designers have overlapped with fashion symbols from progressive pop-culture — a Beyonce-esque wide-brimmed hat, a (grab-‘em-by-the) pussy-bow blouse, a white suit — but without any real action to support feminist causes, Melania is not beaming out silent solidarity toward liberals through her outfits. The clothes she wears only sends one message: “I belong in distinguished society.”
That is what makes Melania’s most recent outfit such a mind-melt. The $39 Zara jacket presumably purchased around 2016 was a green cotton jacket emblazoned with the words “I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?” Not only was this a massive, fast-fashion departure from form, but it was the purest expression of exactly what her husband’s biggest critics would say: That his administration does not care about human beings, and is gleeful in this apathy. Moments after reporters began posting about the jacket, Melania’s spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham offered a statement: “It's a jacket. There was no hidden message. After today's important visit to Texas, I hope this isn't what the media is going to choose to focus on.”
An hour afterward, President Trump contradicted her statement with one of his own: “Melania’s jacket refers to the Fake News Media,” he wrote. “Melania has learned how dishonest they are, and she truly no longer cares!” Ignoring her trip entirely, Trump performs exactly what Melania’s PR team warns against: He directs the focus back to her clothes, instead of her actions.
Is the “U” media? Is the “U” her husband, as some blink-for-help truthers have offered? Is it a general “U” against a faceless hater, and a feeling that she hopes to manifest by simply releasing the statement to the world? If we take a cue from the many other people who’ve worn the jacket as a fashion statement — Bloomberg reporter Kim Bhasin tweeted about a couple international fashion influencers who have paired the jacket with luxury bags and exotic backgrounds — it seems to be latter. One Italian blogger, Jennifer Gianesse, wrote about the meaning she found in the parka in March of 2016: “There will always be people who will want to talk, to criticise us…both for sheer stupidity and especially envy. I think to go their own way is the best solution for living happy and serene.”
The “haters gonna hate” mentality is a common one. There is a reason that the jacket is so popular on social media, and that sentiment is found so often on graphic T-shirts. But what comes across as girlboss-like or brazen on a young fashion blogger reads as disturbing for a First Lady who holds a position that has long been used to promote purposefully unassailable platforms like childhood nutrition, better healthcare, or supporting veterans. The criticism lobbed against Melania has been that the altruism she talks about having is not matched by her actions — it’s not even close. Her “haters” do not think that ending bullying or fixing the opioid epidemic are nefarious causes; they do not believe that she is genuine in her charity. Even worse, her proclamations of goodness are a distraction from the injuries that her husband incurs on the exact same people she purports to protect.
And that — Melania used as a weapon to distract — is already happening, just as planned. The ensuing conversations will be about Melania’s clothes, not Melania’s behaviour. I believe that her spokesperson is right, but missed something absolutely crucial. The real loss here isn’t that Americans are missing out on knowing all that Melania did for children in Texas: It’s that they’ll never find out that she didn’t — that she can’t or won’t— do much at all.